It’s one of the ironies of art—if not life, generally—that the moment you fully realize someone’s influence is frequently exactly when they’re no longer capable of exerting it. Nelly was attacked as a hip-pop softie when he debuted almost a decade ago; now, it’s impossible to imagine what the game would sound like without the musicality his chants instilled in almost every MC’s flow, or calculate how many now-more-successful rappers have benefited from the decentralization of NY/L.A./ATL hip-hop power that his St. Lunatics spearheaded.
But like many inadvertent innovators, Nelly was always a moneymaker first, and it is to those roots he has returned, accepting the role of follower and its promise of mammon. In fact, Brass Knuckles, his first release in four years, has been delayed for nearly a year because no one could find enough stars to which he could hitch this wagon. Nevertheless, it uses time-tested templates for harvesting the green, tweaking Nelly’s singsong delivery by surrounding it with the sort of horny, hooky synth-Southern bounce it inspired, and hedging that bet with the usual army of guests, many of whom, uncomfortably enough, have eclipsed their host in the public consciousness (Fergie, Rick Ross). Still, the record’s better off with them around—”Self Esteem” is even generically “positive” enough to attract Chuck D.
The real problem, though, isn’t the music (accomplished and catchy enough for distracted listening), nor is it Nelly’s own verses (more stylish than substantive, as always). Rather, it’s that a dedicated capitalist—hear his “Buy me the mall” manifesto on “Hold Up”—is using a business model that’s on its way to extinction. While Nelly and his fading-hitmaker ilk take years to craft star-laden vehicles carefully designed to extend their reign, more prolific rappers like Young Jeezy prosper beyond anyone’s wildest dreams with made-in-China beats and bargain-bin rhymes, offering no promises of quality or apologies for the lack of it. It’s strange to say, but the biggest mistake Nelly and his contemporaries might be making is caring too much.